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The Tricky Art of Reading the Heart's True Fortune

Movies* An eclectic mix of actors helped to devise the characters and dialogue for a tale about the effect of a fortuneteller's prediction in `The Simian Line.'

November 16, 2001|ANDRE CHAUTARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In palmistry, the simian line is relatively rare. A single line that traverses the entire palm from left to right, it supposedly indicates that a person's heart and mind are hopelessly intertwined. So when Lynn Redgrave pointed out to Linda Yellen, director of the ensemble relationship drama "The Simian Line," after she was cast that Redgrave actually had a simian line, it seemed like a sign of fate.

It was more than a little appropriate for a film with touches of the otherworldly. In "The Simian Line," which opens today as the first release from Gabriel Film Group, twosomes gathered at a Halloween dinner party in New Jersey are shaken when a fortuneteller played by Tyne Daly announces that one of the couples will be finished by the year's end. One of the couples, unseen by all but Daly's character, is a pair of ghosts from the early 1900s, played by William Hurt and Samantha Mathis.

The cast is filled out by a multigenerational mix of veteran actors and well-known faces newer to acting: Redgrave and Harry Connick Jr. as live-in lovers, Cindy Crawford and Jamey Sheridan as their upwardly mobile neighbors, Monica Keena and Dylan Bruno as young rockers in love, and Eric Stoltz as a social worker who makes a comically unexpected visit.

The germ of the story was born when Yellen, who was going through a breakup, couldn't help but wonder whether insecurities dot all relationships--young, old or possibly even in the afterlife. "The more I started to investigate with people I knew, friends who seemed like they had perfect marriages, I realized that everyone does" have doubts, she says.

Yellen came up with some rough ideas for characters and a story, and brought them to an eclectic group of actors whose work she admired, although she knew none of them beforehand, to collaborate on the script and flesh out the characters.The actors picked their characters' names and backgrounds, and Yellen gave each cast member a five-page biographical questionnaire, asking everything from their character's favorite color to their fears and dreams and relationship history, which the actors would share with each other only if their characters were appropriately intimate. Yellen incorporated the answers into the screenplay, revising the dialogue with the actors, encouraging them to ad-lib during the shoot. It was "like being on a high wire," Mathis says.

"Very often, what they come up with is even better," Yellen says of the cast. "I'm always looking for that moment of freshness or spontaneity."

It helped that Yellen has worked successfully before with ensembles, on the Showtime films "Parallel Lives" and "Chantilly Lace." Don't call it improvisation, though. "I hate that word," Yellen says. "It's a very confusing word, in that [how] it's used by someone like Altman is different than the way that I use it, or Cassavetes."

Since Yellen and her writing partner, Michael Leeds, who share a story credit, considered the cast members to be co-creators, "The Simian Line's" screenplay is credited to a pseudonym: Gisela Bernice. Yellen first coined the name for "Chantilly Lace," when she found out that the Writers Guild of America limits the number of writers who can be credited on a film. Gisela is Yellen's grandmother's first name and Bernice is her mother's.

The film, budgeted at less than $5 million, was shot in 12 days with two cameras on location in New Jersey in January 1999. The actors, who worked for considerably less than their usual rates, had no trailers and all shared the same dressing room in a second-floor bedroom of one house. Long working days outdoors in the freezing cold and on the ferry to Manhattan resulted in almost the whole cast and crew coming down with colds or the flu, and Crawford, four months pregnant, battled morning sickness.

"Everyone was there to really do the work," Mathis says. "We were all there, on call, to be in a scene on any given moment." The cast quickly bonded, which carried over into the filming. "Linda wisely borrowed [from] the relationships we established," says Crawford, whose joking around with Connick, who sang to the cast between takes, translated into more of a flirtation between their characters than was originally planned.

While putting the film together in New York, Yellen visited the small town of Weehawken across the Hudson River, where many of the crew she hired lived because of the inexpensive rents and short ferry ride to the city. The historic town, with old Victorian houses overlooking a magnificent view of the Manhattan skyline, struck her as a perfect setting for "The Simian Line." "It seemed to be that if the Big Apple is just beyond the reach, so, maybe, is our true contentment and love," she says.

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